Saurashtra target pinnacle

Cricket Ranji Trophy final : Shah's determined men take on 40-time champions Mumbai

Saurashtra target pinnacle

Three seasons ago, at the Wankhede stadium, Sitanshu Kotak saw his dream end in disaster as Saurashtra crashed to an innings defeat against the mighty Mumbai in the Ranji Trophy final.

That was Saurashtra’s first Ranji final in 75 years (their maiden final appearance was in 1937-38 as Nawanagar) and the left-handed batsman, who retired at the end of the following season, had to finish his first-class career without winning the country’s premier domestic title.

In a happy turn of events, Kotak, in his new avatar as the coach of the team, has been integral to Saurashtra’s progress to the summit clash which will begin here from Wednesday at the Maharashtra Cricket Association’s stadium. And as fate would have it, he will be up against Mumbai once again. What he couldn’t achieve as a player, Kotak wants to accomplish as a coach and he knows his team has more than a decent chance of upstaging their high-profile rivals.

History and reputation do favour Mumbai, who will be eyeing their 41st title, but Saurashtra exude quiet confidence. Having reeled off seven wins en route to final, Saurashtra appear a well-oiled machine. They did benefit from the designer tracks in their first few matches at home where Ravindra Jadeja bagged a bucketful of wickets but they have also shown an ability to succeed on seaming tracks with the likes of Jaydev Unadkat and Co coming to the party.

Unadkat has also been impressive with the bat with close to 300 runs to his credit but Saurashtra will be banking on their star batsman Cheteshwar Pujara who appears to have hit form at the right time with a 126 that deflated Assam in the semifinal. Till that century, the right-hander had just 111 runs from six innings spread over four matches. Opener Avi Barot (412) and Sagar Jogiyani (474) have been amongst runs while Sheldon Jackson (525) has been holding fort in the middle-order. While the individual performances haven’t been extraordinary, Saurashtra have thrived because they have clicked as a team.

There have been a few slip-ups but Saurashtra have managed to find a way to wriggle out of them. Against Mumbai, however, Jaydev Shah knows only too well that margin for error will be minimal. The left-handed batsman, who was also the team’s skipper when they lost in 2012-13, understands that Mumbai are a different kind of beast.

Not for nothing are they 40-time champions, 32 more than the second-placed Karnataka. No one knows the art of winning better than them and it’s for this reason alone that they would be favourites to land the final punch.

Containing Mumbai batting will be the biggest challenge for Saurashtra bowlers. Led by the hugely talented Shreyas Iyer, who became only the fifth batsman in the history of the tournament to compile 1200 or more runs in a single season, Mumbai have four more batsmen who have topped 550 this season.

Iyer, with 1204 runs from 10 matches so far, has a realistic chance of surpassing Vijay Bharadwaj (1280 in 1998-99), Wasim Jaffer (1260 in 2008-09) and Kedar Jadhav (1223 in 2013-14). VVS Laxman sits atop the tree with a whopping 1415 runs (1999-00).

More than the amount of runs, it’s the manner in which he collects them that makes Iyer a dangerous batsman. With a strike rate of just under 94, the right-hander often sets the agenda for Mumbai to thrive on.

Their batting has often masked the inadequacies in their bowling. That said, Mumbai attack will be bolstered by the return of paceman Dhawal Kulkarni who will likely link up with Shardul Thakur and Balwinder Singh Sandhu. Left-arm spinner Iqbal Abdulla will most likely retain his place while all-rounder Abhishek Nayar can chip in with a few overs of medium pace.

The pitch on offer is the same that was used for the T20I match between India and Sri Lanka recently and if it behaves in similar fashion, the toss may prove crucial.


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